There are a few different definitions of sportswear, ranging from strictly athletic apparel to athleisure, which is designed to be worn casually or while lounging. But how did sportswear come to be considered fashion? And why is it so popular now? Let's take a quick look at the history of athletic apparel to find our answers.
History of Sportswear
Before the 1920s, sportswear only referred to the clothes that athletes wore while they exercised or participated in certain sports. Those athletes did wear the clothes casually as well, especially the clothes designed by British fashion designer John Redfern, who designed athletic apparel for women who played tennis, participated in archery, and rode horses. The fact that Redfern's clients wore his designs for everyday wear makes him the first recognized sportswear fashion designer.
Fashionable sportswear gained popularity in the 1920s, when two different tennis players began designing and selling expensive couture garments to be worn for sport and travel. Then, Coco Chanel designed relaxed jersey suits and simple dresses. By the mid-1920s, mostly taking inspiration from the French styles, athletic apparel had become a staple in American high fashion. Women were encouraged to wear it as everyday wear in order to make themselves more approachable for men; the problem was that, up until this point, it was only readily available to the rich.
Casual sportswear was considered a luxury, even being worn at high-class resorts by wealthy travelers. Designers Clare Potter and Claire McCardell made it accessible to all peoples, though, with their lines of ready-to-wear sportswear. Their clothes were stylish and practical, which meant that their clients could feel comfortable wearing them all day, no matter what activities they were doing. Sportswear continued to grow in popularity, and in the 1960s, the first color-coordinating track suits made out of cotton and nylon were made. Those tracksuits were brought into mainstream fashion by actors like Bruce Lee, who wore the suits in his internationally beloved movies. Suddenly, it was cool to wear athletic apparel even when you weren't doing anything athletic, which stretched into the 1980s with the introduction of the neon ski jacket.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we see a trend of most people preferring athleisure to other types of sportswear. Though yoga pants had become pretty mainstream for US women by the end of the 1990s, there was a spike of popularity nearly 20 years later, when most teenage girls polled said they preferred yoga pants to blue jeans. So, what is it about sportswear, like athleisure, that makes it so popular? Is it all about physical comfort, or is there more going on than meets the eye?
The Culture of Sportswear
As you read above, sportswear has been fashionable for about 100 years. Within the last few years, though, athleisure has grown more popular than ever. Even when the coronavirus hit and sales in the fashion industry plummeted, athleisure brands flourished. What is it about athletic wear that has made it the go-to style for teenagers and adults? There are a few factors that come into play, which we've listed below.
1. Convenience: For adults who live a very busy, fast-paced lifestyle, sportswear fits in easily with almost every daily schedule. Most outfits take time and effort to plan, especially if you're walking into an office setting where you need to make a good first impression. Sportswear is convenient because, while it's highly fashionable, it doesn't require a lot of thought. When you don't have to put thought into your outfits, you save yourself time and energy that are better used elsewhere.
2. Versatile: Sportswear can be worn almost anywhere, which is especially nice for people who enjoy working out but also have to run errands. You don't look weird when you wear workout clothes in a grocery store. The fact that you don't have to change your sportswear to appear presentable has made it all the more popular, especially with stay-at-home parents, students, and adults who work from home. Additionally, athletic apparel can be worn in any season and type of weather, able to protect its wearer from all kinds of elements. It's stylish AND practical.
3. Motivation: One of the reasons many Americans are rededicating themselves to a healthy lifestyle is the effect that COVID has had on our country. People are figuring out how to live with a new "normal," which means figuring out when and how to exercise, what to eat, how much sleep to get, etc. Most people who purchase sportswear are at least interested in exercise and the healthy lifestyle that working out entails, and wearing sportswear helps people who don't otherwise feel motivated find the momentum to go on that first run or first bike ride.
4. Working from Home: Piggy-backing off of the COVID point above, more Americans than ever are now working from home, which means they don't need to get all dressed up for work. Wearing pajamas all day sounds like a nice idea until you need to run errands, which is one of the reasons athleisure is so nice: you can be comfortable and presentable without having to put in a whole lot of effort. Sportswear is a nice middle ground between sleepwear and professional wear, depending on the styles that you pick out for yourself.
5. New Technology: Workout gear today has a lot of features and benefits that it didn't have before, like moisture-wicking, breathable, and super stretchy fabrics that flatter all body shapes. Where older sportswear may have been fashionable but didn't feel comfortable, modern sportswear gives you the best of both worlds, enjoyable to wear while also functional. These new benefits are part of the reason that most people prefer athletic apparel over jeans and polos.
There is no one reason sportswear has become so fashionable or popular; rather, there are lots of little reasons and a history of trends that reach over 100 years. Whatever the truth of its popularity is, it seems that casual sportswear is here to stay, and we couldn't be more excited about it.